Crafts in America - then and now. Beautiful books, provocative questions.

American Craft Today: Poetry of the Physical, by Paul J. Smith and Edward Lucie-Smith. New York: American Craft Museum and Weidenfeld & Nicholson. 327 pp. $40. Lost and Found Traditions: Native American Art 1965-1985, by Ralph T. Coe, edited by Irene Gordon, photographs by Bobby Hansson. Seattle: University of Washington Press in association with the American Federation of Arts. 288 pp. $35. The Arts of the North American Indian: Native Traditions in Evolution, edited by Edwin L. Wade, Carol Haralson coordinating editor. New York: Hudson Hills Press in association with Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa, Okla. 324 pp. $50. Two exhibitions and an international colloquium have generated three beautiful and intellectually stimulating books.

In them one is faced right off the bat with questions: What is art? What is craft? What is the difference? Is there a universal aesthetic? What is tradition? Who is an artist and what role do artists play in society? The books explore possible answers in the text, with ample and specific illustration in photographs of objects.

One thing the varied authors agree on is well put by Edward Lucie-Smith in ``American Craft Today.'' He notes that the new accessibility of art from all over the world ``has struck a heavy blow at the traditional distinction between the fine and applied arts established by Renaissance art theory, since in these non-Western cultures such categories have never been established.''

There still seems to be a lot of trouble, however, with sorting out craft from art. On the one hand, the view that craft is a ``separate field of activity that defines its own aesthetic'' continues; on the other is the even older view that there is no art without craft, nor craft without art - craft being the making of things of some aesthetic value and technical excellence. Edwin L. Wade, writing in ``The Arts of the North American Indian,'' offers the idea that art objects ``might be those which engendered a strong emotional reaction in the societies of their origin.''

William K. Sturtevant, however, bluntly states in the same book that ``a universalistic definition of art is not operationally useful.''

Then comes the question of aesthetics. Is there a universal aesthetic? Some authors say yes. Some say no. It is difficult to know how to assess what symbols or designs may have meant to cultures long gone, not easy even for modern ones, since meanings may be private to the artist or to a select group within a culture. Also, the matter of taste is extremely subjective. And what about the influence of the commercial market? All the books deal with these questions.

Wolfgang Haberland writes in ``The Arts of the North American Indian'' that ``the aesthetic and technical quality of the object was a visual metaphor for a spiritual attitude, a mental state of being.'' He goes on to say that ``what determines the quality of a work of art is its capacity to act on man as nature does: setting the mind and spirit in motion.''

J. Paul Smith in ``American Craft Today'' writes about a sophisticated aesthetic ``which evolves from the process of making and the artist's spiritual involvement with the material,'' coming around to a connection with tradition taken as centering in nature.

That brings up the question of tradition. One of Wade's companion authors, J.C.H. King, puts it in a nutshell: ``Tradition,'' he says, ``is a semantic booby trap.''

Booby trap or not, some of the authors write of tradition simply in terms of that which went before - what one learned from one's elders or masters. King elaborates, however, discussing what tradition means to the archaeologist and the historian, and where they get into trouble with it.

Ralph T. Coe, author of ``Lost and Found Traditions,'' talks about tradition in terms of ``heritage,'' quotes Indians who call it ``doing things right'' or ``a remembering.'' He concludes it is ``an essence that explains to Indians what they are psychologically.'' It is nature ``viewed as a force that cannot be transgressed if man is to survive.'' One seeks to be in harmony with it, to center oneself in the balance of nature, in its inexorable rhythms and ``circles of power and sacredness, which are boundless.''

Modern non-Indian American craftsmen often think of themselves as doing just that, too, as detailed in ``American Craft Today.''

But the concept of nature is tricky. Haberland quotes Melville J. Herskovits on the subject. ``The natural world is natural because we define it as such; because most of us, immersed in our own culture, have never experienced any other definition of reality.''

After all is said and done, though, Wade comes up with the assertion that art, having been long separated from life, has become integrated with it again and with ``the other communications media, which, like art, supply man with fictions.''

If everything is communication, whatever happened to reality?

If you find all this confusing, study the splendid pictures in the books to see what sense you can make of the objects yourself.

Exhibition schedule for ``American Craft Today'': American Craft Museum, New York, Oct. 26-March 22; Denver Art Museum, May 26-July 5, 1987; Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach Calif. Aug. 7-Oct. 4, 1987; Milwaukee Art Museum, Feb. 12-April 10, 1988; J.B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Ky., May 16-July 10, 1988; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Va., Aug. 9-Oct. 2, 1988.

Exhibition schedule for ``Lost and Found Traditions'': For precise dates check with American Museum of Natural History, where the show originated. It is scheduled to travel to Portland, Ore.; St. Paul, Minn.; Anchorage, Alaska; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Los Angeles in 1987 and 1988.

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